Review of the Office of Justice Programsí Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grants Program

Evaluation and Inspections Report I-2008-001
January 2008
Office of the Inspector General


Executive Summary

The Department of Justice (Department) Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grants Program (Coverdell Program) provides funds to state and local governments to improve the timeliness and quality of forensic science and medical examiner services and to eliminate backlogs in the analysis of forensic evidence. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), under the legal and fiscal oversight of the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), distributed almost $15 million in fiscal year (FY) 2006 Coverdell Program grants. In FY 2007, NIJ distributed almost $16.5 million in Coverdell Program grants.

Under the Justice for All Act of 2004 (Act), agencies applying for Coverdell Program grants are required to certify that:

a government entity exists and an appropriate process is in place to conduct independent external investigations into allegations of serious negligence or misconduct substantially affecting the integrity of forensic results committed by employees or contractors of any forensic laboratory system... that will receive a portion of the grant amount.1

This requirement addresses negligence and misconduct in forensic laboratories, including false testimony by some forensic laboratory personnel, which led to wrongful convictions in several states. Independent external investigations of allegations of serious negligence or misconduct provide an important safeguard to reduce problems created by inadequate forensic analysis.

In December 2005, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued an inspection report that found that OJP had not enforced or exercised effective oversight over the external investigation certification requirement for the FY 2005 Coverdell Program.2 One particular concern identified in the report was that OJP did not require grant applicants to identify the government entities that they certified could perform independent external investigations. After the report was issued and after extensive discussions with the OIG, OJP agreed to require grant applicants, prior to receiving funds, to provide the name of the government entity, beginning with the FY 2007 Coverdell Program.

To examine the effectiveness of OJP’s administration of the external investigation certification requirement for the FY 2006 Coverdell Program, we obtained the names of the entities (as OJP agreed to begin doing in FY 2007) and contacted the entities to determine whether they had the authority, a process in place, and the capabilities and resources to conduct independent investigations of wrongdoing in forensic laboratories.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

Our review found that, although OJP has complied with the terms of the statute requirement to obtain certifications from applicants, OJP’s administration of the external investigation certification requirement needs improvement. We found that not all forensic laboratories that received FY 2006 Coverdell Program grant funds are covered by a government entity with the authority and capability to independently investigate allegations of serious negligence or misconduct. Further, OJP’s guidance does not require grantees and sub-grantees (forensic laboratories) to refer allegations of serious negligence and misconduct to entities for investigation.

Although OJP began requiring applicants to provide the names of certified entities in FY 2007, our review showed that OJP does not effectively administer the certification requirement. As a result, in this report we make several recommendations to improve the effectiveness of OJP’s grant administration and to better ensure that serious allegations of negligence or misconduct are referred for independent investigations.

Certified entities were not always qualified. During this review, the OIG contacted the certifying officials for the FY 2006 Coverdell Program grant recipients and asked them to identify the entities that they had certified could conduct independent external investigations into allegations of serious negligence or misconduct involving their forensic laboratories. These officials identified a total of 233 entities that they said could investigate allegations of negligence or misconduct.

The OIG contacted 231 of the 233 entities and concluded that at least 78 (34 percent) did not meet the external investigation certification requirement because they lacked either the authority, the capabilities and resources, or an appropriate process to conduct independent external investigations into allegations of serious negligence or misconduct by the forensic laboratories that received FY 2006 Coverdell Program funds.

For example, one entity named by a certifying official told us that it conducted financial audits and had no authority to conduct investigations of negligence or misconduct in forensic laboratory work. An official from another entity told us that his entity did not have the capabilities and resources to conduct investigations involving DNA analysis and would have to request funds from the state legislature to contract for DNA expertise if it received such an allegation. More than half of all entity officials told us that they had not been previously informed that their entities had been certified to conduct independent external investigations as required by the Coverdell Program.

The OIG identified shortcomings in OJP’s administration of the FY 2006 external investigation certification that allowed the above problems to occur. First, OJP did not require applicants to confirm to OJP that applicants had identified government entities that had the authority, a process in place, and the capabilities and resources to conduct independent external investigations of forensic laboratories. In fact, OJP could not ensure that the applicants had identified an entity at all: Five certifying officials told the OIG that when they completed the certification they did not have a specific entity in mind – they merely signed the template OJP provided.

Second, we found that OJP did not adequately review the information it did obtain to ascertain that the certifications submitted by the grantees were properly completed. Each certification must contain specific statements and be signed by a knowledgeable official authorized to make certifications on behalf of the applicant agency. Our review identified certifications from 38 grantees that were signed by individuals who did not appear to be from the applicant agency, including 17 in which the applicant agency named on the certification was different from the applicant agency that submitted the grant application. OJP still awarded grants to these 38 agencies.

Overall, our review found that OJP’s administration of the Coverdell Program allowed it to award grants to applicants that did not identify a qualified entity that can conduct independent investigations of serious negligence or misconduct in forensic laboratories.

Guidance and processes are not in place to ensure that allegations of serious negligence or misconduct are referred to the entities. During our review, we examined whether OJP’s guidance directs grantees and forensic laboratories to refer allegations of negligence and misconduct for investigation by the certified entities. When we asked OJP about its guidance regarding handling allegations of negligence and misconduct, we found that OJP has advised a grantee (and the grantee advised forensic laboratories) that it did not have to refer allegations of serious negligence and misconduct to the entity that it certified for an independent investigation. OJP’s General Counsel stated to the OIG his belief that, while the reporting of allegations is consistent with the statute, the statute does not require that allegations actually be referred to the entity that was certified for investigation.

Also, we examined whether grantee and forensic laboratory processes are adequate to ensure that allegations of negligence and misconduct by forensic laboratories are referred for investigation by the certified entities, and we found they are not. We asked certifying officials for the FY 2006 Coverdell Program grant recipients whether there had been allegations of negligence or misconduct at the laboratories that received FY 2006 Coverdell Program funds and, if so, whether the allegations were referred to the certified entities. The certifying officials told us of seven allegations of negligence and misconduct. According to the certifying officials, six of the seven allegations were reported to the grant recipients’ entities for investigation. However, one allegation of serious misconduct was not investigated by the entity. In that case, the Director of a s tate crime laboratory reported to the OIG that laboratory management investigated an allegation that two analysts had not been following proper review procedures since 2002. The Director stated that the matter was not reported to the government entity – the state police – because the laboratory was “the best agency to handle the investigation.” The two analysts resigned before the investigation was completed.

Finally, in our discussions with entity officials we found that some of the established processes for responding to allegations of negligence and misconduct would not provide for an independent external investigation. For example, one entity official told us that if there were allegations of negligence or misconduct at the forensic laboratory, the entity (a state council) would be informed, but the laboratory itself – not the entity – would investigate the allegation.

Overall, OJP should improve its administration of the certification requirement by providing guidance that directs grantees and forensic laboratories to refer serious allegations of negligence or misconduct to the certified entities for independent investigation.

CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS

We concluded that, although OJP has complied with the terms of the statute to obtain certifications from applicants, OJP’s administration of the Coverdell Program external investigation certification requirement is not effective for ensuring that qualified entities are certified, and that allegations of serious negligence or misconduct are referred for investigation. Our review found that one-third of the entities identified by the FY 2006 Coverdell Program certifying officials lacked the authority or capability to independently investigate allegations of negligence or misconduct at forensic laboratories. Beginning with the FY 2007 Coverdell Program, OJP has agreed to require grant applicants, prior to receiving funds, provide the name of the government entity. Obtaining the names of the entities is a step forward and will ensure that applicants do not submit certifications when they have not actually identified entities capable of independently investigating misconduct or negligence. However, as our review demonstrated, requiring only that an applicant provide the name of an entity is insufficient to ensure the entity can conduct independent investigations. To improve its administration of the Coverdell Program, we believe that OJP needs to require that applicants provide sufficient information to ensure that the applicants have accurately assessed the qualifications and independence of the entities they certify.

Moreover, we are concerned that current guidance and procedures do not ensure that allegations of serious negligence or misconduct are actually referred for an independent investigation by a qualified entity. Under OJP’s current guidance, the external investigation certification requirement established by Congress is satisfied solely with the submission of a certification form, and nothing more is required if allegations are received. We believe this position undermines and diminishes the utility of the Coverdell Program for improving the oversight of forensic laboratories. OJP should enhance the effectiveness of the Coverdell Program for ensuring the integrity of forensic analysis by requiring that allegations of wrongdoing at forensic laboratories actually be referred to the certified entities for independent investigation.

To improve OJP’s administration of the Coverdell Program and better ensure that allegations of negligence or misconduct are subject to independent external investigation, the OIG recommends that OJP take the following actions:

  1. Revise the certification template to require that applicants name the government entities and confirm that the government entities have:

    1. the authority,
    2. the independence,
    3. a process in place that excludes laboratory management, and
    4. the resources

    to conduct independent external investigations into allegations of serious negligence or misconduct by the forensic laboratories that will receive Coverdell Program funds.

  2. Provide applicants with guidance that allegations of serious negligence or misconduct substantially affecting the integrity of forensic results are to be referred to the certified government entities.

  3. Revise and document the Coverdell Program application review process so that only applicants that submit complete external investigation certifications are awarded grants.



Footnotes
  1. Title I of the Omnibus Safe Streets and Crime Control Act of 1968, Part BB, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 3797k(4).

  2. U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General, Review of the Office of Justice Programs’ Forensic Science Improvement Grant Program, Evaluation and Inspections Report I-2006-002 (December 2005).



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